Local Artist’s Work Speaks Through Historic Narratives

By Christina Sturdivant on June 20, 2014

By Christina Sturdivant

Joanna Blake and crew in front of her Battle of 1812 sculpture in Bladensburg, Maryland. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Practicing an artistry that memorializes historic people, places and events, Joanna Blake has found that her line of work is very different from artists who work in their studios, fashioning pieces out of their own thoughts and ideas.

“This is quite different because with public works you’re really taking someone else’ narrative and trying to convey that,” she says. “With great paintings and sculptures of the past, the most successful ones capture this moment of pure narrative, so that’s what I’m trying to do more with my work.”

The Mobile, Alabama native graduated from Auburn University with a concentration in painting, however, she crossed over to sculpting when she created terracotta works for Auburn in collaboration with Gary Wagoner.

In 2001, she was granted the opportunity to work with sculptor Raymond Kaskey and is now most recognized for her work on the World War II Memorial on the national mall and the Schermerhorn Symphony Center in Nashville, TN.

Creating a mold in the studio.  Image courtesy of the artist.
In the studio. Image courtesy of the artist.

More recently, Blake has been instrumental in creating a commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg to include a memorial that will serve as a tribute to the soldiers, sailors and marines who laid their lives on the line to defend the Nation’s Capital on August 24, 1814.

From a grade-school course in American history, one might remember that the burning of the White House, Capitol and other government buildings were climatic occurrences in the War of 1812. However, within this over two-year fight against the British, specific victories and defeats may be difficult to recall—even as many DC metro residents casually traverse the sites of these battles, today.

“You would never know when you’re driving down Bladensburg that a really important historical event happened right there, so I feel a part of history in helping bring awareness to that,” says Blake.

In 2009, the project was presented to Blake by the The Aman Memorial Trust, which supports historic preservation in and about the town of Bladensburg.

“I did some research because I didn’t remember much about it from American History, but turns out it wasn’t a very good day,” says Blake, of the precursor event to the capture and burning of Washington. “The challenge for me was how do you commemorate a defeat?”

Initially, the sculpture was conceptualized to depict the hero of the day, Commodore Joshua Barney who along with 120 marines under his command, fought to stall the invaders for an evacuation of Washington.

“I had this idea that because it was a defeat, it should be more somber—instead of showing Barney leading an attack against the British, he’s wounded and he still has his sword up,” says Blake.

Recognizing the courageousness of other servicemen, she also decided to incorporate Charles Ball, a former slave and member of the flotilla who manned the cannon, as well as an additional member of the Marines who assisted Barney in battle.

“I thought that was such a compelling story—one you never hear from American History and it would just be cool if we represent not just Barney but everybody who was there that day in a way, so its three figures now and not just one,” she says.

The bronze relief sculpture, which reads “undaunted in battle,” is 8 ft tall by 10 ft wide and will be dedicated during a host of festivities to include British and American troop reenactors, cannons, a firework show and all-ages programming at the Bladensburg Waterfront Park – 4601 Annapolis Rd, Bladensburg, MD – on August 2014.

On September 6, 2014, another of Blake’s recent work will be dedicated in Alexandria, VA—two relief panels to honor slaves buried at the Contrabands and Freedmen Cemetery Memorial – 1001 S. Washington, St., Alexandria VA.

Sculpture by Joanna Blake honoring slaves buried at the Contraband and Freedmens Cemetery Memorial in Alexandria, Va. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Sculpture by Joanna Blake honoring slaves buried at the Contraband and Freedmens Cemetery Memorial in Alexandria, Va. Photo courtesy of the artist.

With the unveiling of upcoming projects, she hopes to contract more monument and memorial work to continue her artistry.

“I really enjoy sculpting the figure and seeing the work evolve,” she says. “It’s fun to collaborate with somebody new and figure out a way to come to a narrative that conveys the intent in the monument.”